Into the Cave

Jo Livingstone, interviewed by Merve Emre

Jo Livingstone

Jo Livingstone

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

Jo Livingstone and I first met at the Oxford Wine Café, a dingy spot just outside Oxford’s city center, in 2018. We had the most engrossing conversation two people have probably ever had about the medieval English mystic Margery Kempe, and how a critic can make old works of literature sing for a contemporary audience. This is one of Jo’s gifts as a writer and a thinker—the ability to draw distant works into the present. We see it in their criticism for, among other places, The New Republic, Bookforum, and The Stopgap, and in the delightful podcast they cohost with Charlotte Shane, Reading Writers. I know we will see it in the book they’ve just finished on Kempe.

I see this gift for historical analysis exercised with the strongest sense of purpose in Jo’s brilliant and fiery acceptance speech for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which they won in 2021. In the speech, they spoke about writing in a state of constant emergency. They tell the story of Wulfstan, an English bishop who preaches to his people about the coming apocalypse, urging them to heed his words in the face of certain destruction. There is something of Donald Trump in Wulfstan, but also something of the literary critic. “Every person who takes time out of living through the apocalypse to contemplate it, not only directly but also through the contemplation of others’ contemplations, is like a Wulfstan at the end of the world, lamenting from his lectern, refusing to stop tolling the bell,” Jo said. “Even at the very end of our tethers, in this time of every man for himself, we wrap ourselves in layers of language, for no other reason than we want to. Naked self-interest isn’t always so bad.” 

Merve Emre: Most of the members of your audience are college students. How do you narrate your journey from where they are to where you are today?

Jo Livingstone: I first read a medieval poem when I was twenty, just about to turn twenty-one. After senior school, I got a foundation diploma in art and design from Camberwell College of Art and Design in south London. I was going to be a painter, and I had been very irritated by the unseriousness of the people in art school, which is ridiculous because we were all seventeen-year-old painters. It was more of a catwalk than a school, really. Just so much drama. Everyone was gorgeous. Florence from Florence & the Machine was in my class; she wasn’t doing much work either.

I realized that I had no unserious relationship to my work, and then I realized that I was really in a big muddle, and I should probably start again. I dropped out of art school, went to study English at the age of twenty, and there I met medieval literature, which beckoned me with a withered claw from the past.

Tell me more about that beckoning. Do you remember the first poem that you read, or what it was about its language that gripped you?

It’s quite normal in English departments everywhere that at some point you take a class in Old English, which is the language that was spoken in Britain just before the Norman Conquest, before English acquired a French aspect. These classes often begin with the observation that Old English still plays an important part in contemporary English. There are many words for which there will be a fancy, French version, and a non-fancy, Old English version. For example, spirit and ghost are the same word, but ghost is the Old English version and spirit is the French version, esprit. One has a fancier register.

The politics of that are interesting. It’s a good way to introduce undergraduates to the idea that the history of the English language is really unwieldy. There’s no easy way to describe how it’s put together. When you look at diction in English texts of any era, you’ve got to consider slightly different historical factors, and you have a different challenge than you would have with Italian, for example. There’s a very different material history to the words in our mouths and in front of us.

I had this classic experience of going straight into being taught Old English. Many undergraduates hate it. I really loved it. I found the grammar to be easy because it’s quite basic.

I love the recitation involved in Old English. I learned Old English in graduate school, and the midterm exam involved standing up before the class and reciting Cædmon’s hymn: “Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,/metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc….” It’s a great party trick, walking up to people at a party and asking if they’d like to hear you perform Cœdmon’s hymn.  


I actually didn’t have any recitation aspect to my education. I was taught a very manuscript-oriented version of what people call “historical linguistics,” which comes along with studying the material culture, studying the poems. You have to learn some quite structured information: when was the great vowel shift; where did that vowel shift to and from; how to pronounce things. You learn a lot, but it’s not an overwhelming amount, and it opens up under pressure very quickly.

Would you do that again? Just a little bit slower?

“Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard,/metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc…” I’m skipping a couple of lines here, but, “hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum/heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen.”

It’s so good. Could you feel the sound in your mouth, Merve, when you’re saying it?

That’s what I love about it. There’s a tactility, a volume, a density to the speech that I don’t feel when I speak modern English.

For sure. And the s sounds work very differently. There are a lot of “/swa/” sounds, which changed over time. What really caught my imagination at first was the kennings. In Old English, you can do what you can also do in a number of contemporary languages, but not really in English, which is jam two words together that don’t go together grammatically. A kenning more specifically is two nouns, and you might be familiar with this from German, like the fussgängerzone of the pedestrian walking area, the “foot person place.” A very famous example is the whale-road in Beowulf.

Wait a second—here we are geeking out about Old English, which I will continue to do with you. But you are primarily a critic for places like The New Republic and The Stopgap, which you’re editing now. How do we get from the monkish study of English manuscripts to contemporary criticism?

Merve, but I’ve already drawn everyone into my cave with me. I want to stay in the cave.

Now you sound like Grendel’s mother.

What a wronged woman. I had quite a confusing upbringing, in literary terms. My parents are South African. I lived in Hong Kong when I was little, then in London. Then I moved to New York right after undergraduate. I really don’t think I had time to look around and think until I had to lock myself in a room and read a really muddy poem, and that was life-changing. It was life-changing to understand happiness in that configuration. In what feels like an unconscious or a passive way, that configuration is what I have ended up reconstructing in doing criticism. It’s very monastic. It’s all about being alone but still reaching out to find the other people through the cave.

That’s a nice description of the kind of work that we do. It’s often done in solitude, but it’s about reaching out toward other people. We’ve had in this series many configurations of what a critic is, among them the critic as a medium and the critic as a defender of her people. I like the idea of the critic as a monk. Practically speaking, how does that role play out in your criticism?

It fuses perfectly with the principle of fraternal correction, which is the obligation to correct others without officially disciplining them. The Admonitiones in medieval Latin is a quite popular form with which [people] told each other off in the later Middle Ages within the convent or the monastery. That is how meaning is often created in medieval texts, through strict form and the places that those forms stretch.

For instance, something that is very often misunderstood about allegory is that, for the medieval artist, allegory doesn’t end at the edge of an artwork. The world itself has both visible meanings and invisible meanings. It’s a matter of mortal spiritual importance for the person who thinks they know these meanings to communicate them to everybody else. What is the meaning of a grape? What is the meaning of a tree? I feel so sure about it that I have to tell everybody and I want to fight them about it. This is how we’re going to fundamentally agree on ontological concerns.

Give me an example of something that you’ve written in which you felt it was mortally important to make a claim about the ontological concerns of the artwork.

There was a translation of the medieval poem called Pearl that came out about five or six years ago. It was translated by Simon Armitage, who is a very famous contemporary poet. He had written an introduction and a preface for it. Pearl is written in a late medieval, slightly difficult dialect. It’s the same dialect as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; it would be very familiar to you if you’ve read that. But Pearl creates a very chaotic feeling, a very chaotic experience. It’s about a man telling a story about losing a pearl, and a long stream of vision ensues. He sees crystal kingdoms on the other side of a river. He sees impossible gem-based realities flourishing. The poem is an extraordinary visual assault.


Then, about a third of the way through, he finally finds the pearl. But the pearl is a girl. “Margaret” is essentially Latin for “pearl.” The poem essentially transforms from being about nonliving, God-animated organic matter to being about the memory of a little girl’s face. Armitage manages to communicate the fact that the poet doesn’t recognize her at first. At first, he says, “I think I know you from somewhere.” He maybe even stretches that moment out a bit in the translation.

I read that and I thought that parenthood is one of those things that you can stab time with. Loving a child that you’ve lost is exactly the same now as it was then, probably, and here’s proof. Simon Armitage has stepped into that fact, and stayed there, and that seemed like an emergency. I had to tell everybody else to gather around this little moment that he had created.

A charge that could have been leveled against Armitage, and where I thought you were going, was to accuse him of anachronism. You’re saying the exact opposite, which is that there are some human experiences that remain constant over time, and so even if they’re being given to us in a medieval poem, a modern reader can coexist with them quite happily.  

I truly do not believe in anachronism. I think of it as a very specific formal term. Your tolerance for it will depend on your opinion of the unconnectedness of things, and on your belief that things are unequally unconnected across time, which doesn’t make any sense to me.

What do you think about starting a Beowulf translation with “yo” or “bro?”

It is philologically sound. Beowulf begins with “hwæt,” which means something like, “Shut up and sit down.” It’s a sound that you make to get people pay attention. “Yo” I don’t love because it’s very, “I’m teaching Shakespeare to black teenagers in a film made in the 1990s.” Anachronism is really dark when people reveal who they think doesn’t belong next to something else. Where was I going?

“Yo” you don’t like, but “bro” you like.

Because “bro” is perfect. Because “bro” has had all the gender scraped out of it and is in common currency across the English-speaking world, whereas “yo” is strongly racialized. It means something else now. It’s so stretchy. You can yell it really far. It’s not anachronistic at all. That’s just a close translation. Because otherwise people translate it as, “Lo!” No one even says that. “Hello” would be good, but “hello” only came about when the telephone was invented.

That just makes me think of Adele’s “Hello.” This has been a very musical event, but instead of me singing Adele’s “Hello,” we are going to have your object sung for you tonight.

Holy mackerel.

Bro! Please welcome Myles and Stuart from the Collegium Musicum to sing Jo’s object.

Edi beo thu, hevene quene,
Folkes frovre and engles blis.
Moder unwemmed and maiden clene, Swich in world non other nis.
On the hit is weleth sene
Of alle wimmen thu havest the pris.
Mi swete levedi, her mi bene
And reu of me yif thi wille is.
Blessed be thou, queen of heaven,
People’s comfort and angel’s bliss,
Maid unblemished, mother pure,
Such as no other in the world is.
In thee it is easily seen that
Of all women thou hast the highest place.
My sweet lady, hear my prayer
And show pity on me if it is thy will.
Thu asteye so the daiy rewe
The deleth from the deorke nicht.
Of the sprong a leome newe That al this world haveth iliyt. Nis non maide of thine heowe, Swo fair, so sschene, so rudi, swo bricht;
Swete levedi of me thu reowe, and have merci of thin knicht.
Spronge blostme of one rote,
The Holi Gost thee reste upon;
Thet wes for monkunnes bote
And heore soule to alesen for on.
Levedi milde, softe and swote,
Ic crie thee merci, ic am thi mon,
Bothe to honde and to fote,
On alle wise that ic kon.
Thou didst ascend like the first dawn
That brings dark night to an end;
From these sprang a new light
That has lightened the whole world. There is no other maid like thee,
So fair, so beautiful, so ruddy, so bright;
Sweet lady, pity me and have mercy on thy knight.   Blossom sprung from a single root,
The Holy Ghost rested upon you;
That was for mankind’s benefit
And their soul to redeem on.
Lady mild, soft and sweet,
I cry for your mercy, I am your servant,
Both hand and foot,
In all ways that I know.

That was beautiful. What do we do with this, Jo? Most of the things that I give people I know a good deal about, and feel quite confident being in dialogue with. This object is completely out of my wheelhouse linguistically, historically, figuratively, and thematically. I’m really going to lean on you, so take us away.

Wonderful. You have a translation here, so you can tell what it says. The beauty of the medieval is that there’s almost never a title and there’s almost never an author. That means that you can skip a good twenty minutes of what you might spend class talking about. This is also why I think that medievalists make great critics. We’re the true “prac crit” specialists, because no one cares about what we do.

No one cares about what you do, or no one cares about the identity of who has written the objects that you care about?


No one cares about you, and no one cares about who’s written what you’re reading. Excellent.

Exactly. No one’s been interfering. There are no extras. It’s just the beautiful song and the human voice. So pure.

We should begin by talking about the form of this beautiful piece of literature, which is a song. This is written in Middle English, and this is an English song, I believe. Everything about its history, you can hear. This is from the Marian cult, which worshipped the Virgin Mary as a critical and affective figure who organized the way that everyday people related to important questions, like what it means to suffer and what it means to be beautiful. This is a meditation on that kind of ineffable beauty.

But in the tune, you can hear the influence of balladry, of the secular. This is not in Latin, which is significant; this is in Middle English, which is what everyday people spoke. “Swete levedi,” sweet lady, that’s something you would definitely say to your actual sweet lady. No Latin, but we certainly have phrases that are from the great corpus of Christian Latin literature of the Middle Ages, which is essentially the great tissue of mutual quotation. They are very recognizable as a formula. “Of alle wimmen thu havest the pris,” “You sit highest in heaven.” These are the kind of formulaic phrases that you come across with Christ.

I’m interested in what you said about how this is addressed to the Virgin Mary, but that some of these moments of address could just as easily be to your sweet lady here on earth. What, if any, relationship does this have to courtly love?

I would say it has less to do with courtly love than with the love lyric tradition. Love poetry has a very close relationship with the seasons and the weather in the Middle Ages. In a poem about “spronge blostme,” things springing, you might talk about the fish and the flood and the flowers growing. In springtime, flowers grow and people fall in love. That’s where all of these rhythms come from. It’s exactly right that it’s all mixed up with the idea of coming across an actual hottie at the harvest.

You mean a “swete levedi.”

Yes, coming across a “swete levedi” at the fair. Her beauty isn’t really her, it’s the integumentum—the veil that God has drawn over reality, the world that we perceive. Her beauty is a metaphor that helps you to understand the theology of the Virgin Mary, and hence the great mysteries of everything. Also, it is a miracle that she lives and breathes in front of you, in your lifetime. She’s part of an eternal presence, connected to the way that the universe is bolted together.

It’s easy to think of these as separate traditions—the Virgin Mary and love poems, courtly love, balladry, troubadours. There were lots of secular traveling musicians in the Middle Ages. But these traditions are never really separate to begin with. There’s no disembodied theology of the Virgin Mary. It’s in medieval music, especially in the medieval English music that survives.

I’m pretty sure this song is from a manuscript with only one copy. Most of the music in England from the Middle Ages was lost during the Reformation because most of it wasn’t written down. But this one, I’m pretty sure, was. Very little survives. But what does has such a sense of everyday life melting into the mysteries of everything. It’s done through language and through music. The paucity of what survives gives a misleading sense that anything was separated from anything else. Everything is everything. This is absolutely a poem about the everythingness of everything.

Can you hear that melding in the music itself as opposed to the lyrics?

I’m definitely not a musicologist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a big fan of musicologists. I find that medieval music sounds really bad when written about using the vocabulary of contemporary or nineteenth-century classical music. You have words like “monophonic chanting,” which has nothing to do with the cathedral of sound that you can experience. You’ve got the two voices doing this beautiful movement across and around and through each other. The motion has a theological aspect to it.

The fact of the human voice gets much more complicated in the early modern period, especially within the Church, because we get historical prohibitions like, “Let’s not have women singing in church,” or the rise of castrato music. The Catholic church had a very complicated, important influence on how society ended up looking today. The meaning of the voice changed so much.

Medieval song is quite rare, which is why it can feel difficult to analyze any medieval work of art, because there’s often nothing that’s proximate. There’s often nothing else to compare it to, there’s no way of being systematic, there’s no way of saying, “This embodies that in a precise way.” You have to take it on its own terms. The song is the song. I also think there is a theological aspect to opening your mouth and singing with one other person in the Middle Ages that I’m not equipped to be able to hear. What am I feeling that I’m not understanding? That’s the question I would research.

I want to praise our singers for their gorgeous pronunciation of knicht for knight. The k at the beginning was pronounced and everything was absolutely gorgeous.

I felt very moved by “swo fair, so sschene, so rudi, swo bricht.” That line jumps out at me for some reason. Maybe you can tell me why.

We’ve got this lovely, anaphoric repetition of “swo fair, so sschene,” which is “so beautiful, so gleaming.” Again, these words can sound wrong when translated to their literal cognates. “So light, so shiny, so ruddy, so bright”—that doesn’t sound good. But when sung, you feel what is the same rather than what is different. That’s a big issue of judgment for me, and something that I carry over to other works of art.

I love the way these stanzas move between the particular and what’s in front of you, on the one hand, and what happens every day and what is eternal on the other. It’s so lovely, and very medieval. “Moder unwemmed and maiden clene.” “Mother unwed and maiden clean, untouched.” They’re paradoxes. This is also what the love lyrics do. I’d like to know how the rhythm holds it together for the singer. I think there is some kind of structure making the song cohere. What words would I use to describe that? I don’t know, because analyzing something outside a familiar medium is like approaching an object from a culture from which little has survived. There’s nothing that can help you except what you know to be true about your experience.

We tend to think of people exercising judgment on contemporary works in part to separate the wheat from the chaff. Read this, don’t read that, watch this, don’t watch that. That ideology doesn’t quite hold up when you’re talking about work for which time has already done the culling. How do you judge? Or is judgment even operative on a text like this, or on any medieval work?

It forces you into pure critical relation. The wonderful thing is that there’s no title, there’s no author. I know things about medieval culture, which means I can guess that this is from a book with only one copy, and probably from an abbey in England, one of those that survived—an Augustinian abbey, maybe. But ultimately there is just a song, which existed when people didn’t know that there was a book of it, or if the book had survived. A song’s historical life is different from those of other texts.

When you talk about time doing the culling, for me it’s often about finding what layers of history I have to reconstitute to get to a place where I feel confident enough to say anything. We have to proceed from the agreed-upon basis that whatever has survived is good. The important question is how to get to a position where we are equipped to meet the work and not be surpassed by it.

Your assumption is that whatever has survived is good, and the burden is on you to be able to live up to the object.

Not to live up to it, but to find the question it’s asking you—to understand the question, not to answer it. Otherwise, it’s like one of those nineteenth-century poems about medieval people stumbling across ancient Roman ruins and concluding that they were put there by aliens.

I had a strong aesthetic reaction listening to Collegium Musicum sing. I have almost no aesthetic reaction to reading the text on the page. How can I interrogate these distinct reactions that I am having?

Close your eyes. “Edi beo thu, hevene queen,/Folkes frovre and engles blis./Moder unwemmed—”  

Yes, I have a reaction to that, but when I just look at the text, I feel nothing. How does singing or orating invite us into a different relation of judgment than the text?

What I was driving at before I got distracted by the idea of the Roman ruins was that the beautiful song they sang is a reminder that this is what literature is. It’s very problematic to speak of anything as natural or unnatural, but language is natural. Writing is an invention. The very idea of us limiting the association of emotion with writing to the printed page is like walking into a cupboard and closing the door and saying, “I don’t like this house.” That is the lesson of the song: the invention of the printing press is not the beginning of feeling. Technological determinism is the easiest fantasy to step into, because you have to do it all day long in order to practically live your life. And you have to deliberately force yourself to forget what you think lets you understand the world, in order to greet something new. That is how every work of art from any time deserves to be met.

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